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The establishment of nautical standard times, nautical standard time zones and the nautical date line were recommended by the Anglo-French Conference on Time-keeping at Sea in 1917. The Conference recommended that the standard apply to all ships, both military and civilian. These zones were adopted by all major fleets between 1920 and 1925 but not by many independent merchant ships until World War II.
The nautical time zone system is an ideal form of the terrestrial time zone system for use on high seas. Under the system time changes are required for changes of longitude in one-hour steps. The one-hour step corresponds to a time zone width of 15° longitude. The 15° gore that is offset from GMT or UT1 (not UTC) by twelve hours is bisected by the nautical date line into two 7.5° gores that differ from GMT by ±12 hours. A nautical date line is implied but not explicitly drawn on time zone maps. It follows the 180th meridian except where it is interrupted by territorial waters adjacent to land, forming gaps: it is a pole-to-pole dashed line.
Time on a ship's clocks and in a ship's log had to be stated along with a "zone description", which was the number of hours to be added to zone time to obtain GMT, hence zero in the Greenwich time zone, with negative numbers from −1 to −12 for time zones to the east and positive numbers from +1 to +12 to the west (hours, minutes, and seconds for nations without an hourly offset). These signs are different from those given in the List of UTC time offsets because ships must obtain GMT from zone time, not zone time from GMT.
Around 1950, a letter suffix was added to the zone description, assigning Z to the zero zone, and A–M (except J) to the east and N–Y to the west (J may be assigned to local time in non-nautical applications — zones M and Y have the same clock time but differ by 24 hours: a full day). These can be vocalized using the NATO phonetic alphabet which pronounces the letter Z as Zulu, leading to the use of the term "Zulu Time" for Greenwich Mean Time.
Zone Z runs from 7.5°W to 7.5°E longitude, while zone A runs from 7.5°E to 22.5°E longitude, etc.
These nautical letters have been added to some time zone maps, like the World Time Zone Map published by Her Majesty's Nautical Almanac Office (NAO), which extended the letters by adding an asterisk (*) or dagger (†) for areas that do not use a nautical time zone, and a section sign (§) for areas that do not have a legal standard time (the Greenland ice sheet and all of Antarctica. The United Kingdom specifies UTC−3 for the Antarctic Peninsula, but no other country recognizes that).
In maritime usage, GMT retains its historical meaning of UT1, the mean solar time at Greenwich. UTC, atomic time at Greenwich, is too inaccurate, differing by as much as 0.9 seconds from UT1, creating an error of 1⁄4 of a minute of longitude at all latitudes and which is 1⁄4 nautical mile (0.46 km; 0.29 mi) at the equator but less at higher latitudes, varying roughly by the cosine of the latitude. However, DUT can be added to UTC to correct it to within 50 milliseconds of UT1, reducing the error to only 20 metres (66 ft).
In practice, nautical times are used only for radio communication, etc. Aboard the ship, e.g. for scheduling work and meal times, the ship may use a suitable time of its own choosing. The captain is permitted to change his or her clocks at a chosen time following the ship's entry into another time zone, typically at midnight. Ships on long-distance passages change time zone on board in this fashion. On short passages the captain may not adjust clocks at all, even if they pass through different time zones, for example between the UK and continental Europe. Passenger ships often use both nautical and on-board time zones on signs. When referring to time tables and when communicating with land, the land time zone must be employed.
Up to late 1805 the Royal Navy used three days: nautical, civil (or "natural"), and astronomical. A nautical day entered in a ship's log as 10 July, for example, in fact commenced at noon on 9 July civil reckoning, PM therefore coming before AM. The astronomical day of 10 July, on the other hand, commenced at noon of 10 July civil reckoning, and ended at noon on 11 July. The astronomical day was brought into use following the introduction of the Nautical Almanac in 1767, and the British Admiralty issued an order ending the use of the nautical day on 11 October 1805. The US did not follow suit until 1848, while many foreign vessels carried on using it until the 1880s.
Prior to 1920, all ships kept local apparent time on the high seas by setting their clocks at night or at the morning sight so that, given the ship's speed and direction, it would be 12 o'clock when the sun crossed the ship's meridian. The local apparent noon is 12 noon.